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2016 Fantasy Football Outlooks: AFC North Edition

The final four teams in my Divisional Outlook Series come from the AFC North. Here's what I expect from the top fantasy football options on the Ravens, Bengals, Browns, & Steelers heading into the 2016 season.

Steelers all-pro wideout Antonio Brown is at the top of nearly every fantasy football draft board for 2016.
Steelers all-pro wideout Antonio Brown is at the top of nearly every fantasy football draft board for 2016.
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Known by many as the NFL's toughest division, teams in the AFC North aren't afraid to play physical football on a weekly basis.  This, of course, leads to plenty of trash talk and cheap shots when division rivals square off, but the end result is usually a game that leaves you on the edge of your seat, no matter who the favorite was coming into the contest.  The Bengals were able to crown themselves as division champs last season, but once again were unable to make any noise in the playoffs, losing to the Steelers in a nail-biter.  Pittsburgh went on to lose their own dramatic playoff game to Denver in the next round.  The Ravens were riddled with injury all throughout their roster in 2015, and the Browns, well, they were the Browns.  Let's take a look at every weapon in the AFC North with a fantasy focus.

*This particular series of articles is intended to break down every NFL team's 2016 offensive playmakers and discuss what impact they'll have on the wonderful world of Fantasy Football.  In each divisional write-up, I predict player outlooks for the upcoming season by separating each team's offense into two parts:  Passing Game + Running Game.  I'll update each divisional article as news and reports surface, so don't forget to check back regularly.*

Baltimore Ravens

Passing game:

Returning from a torn ACL, ridiculously overpaid QB Joe Flacco will look to rebound from a 2015 campaign where his offense was depleted by injury, himself included.  After posting an unimpressive 14:12 TD to INT ratio in ten starts, Flacco is surely hoping to improve upon that in 2016 with a healthy receiving corps.  With what projects to be the 4th-friendliest schedule in terms of fantasy QB points allowed by opponents, Flacco should have a more productive season than last year's injury-shortened campaign.  He'll have his usual ups and downs, and I can't see him as anything more than a QB2 with occasional streaming appeal in standard leagues this season.

Steve Smith Sr. has proven to be an ageless wonder at this stage of his career, as he heads back for a 16th NFL season at 37 years old.  Obviously, there are more doubts than ever before, especially after Smith tore his achilles tendon in Week 8.  Before the injury, he was producing at a high level as the Ravens' go-to target in the passing game, but this season he'll likely see a smaller role.  If he can successfully rehab and get onto the field for Week 1, Smith could provide one last impressive slate of statistics before riding off into the sunset to "ice up" for good.  But, after news broke that Smith actually suffered a "double rupture" of his achilles, I can't recommend drafting him as anything more than a hopeful WR4 whenever he gets back on the field.

Kamar Aiken isn't a stand-out athlete in terms of measurables, but he stepped in for the Ravens and was a serviceable option for Flacco and company.  If Smith has a hard time rebounding from his injury, Aiken could once again be a valuable fantasy option in 2016.  Despite not having his primary starting quarterback at the end of 2015, Aiken averaged a solid 90 yards per game in his final four contests.  Getting Flacco back for a full season on a Baltimore team that doesn't have many healthy or consistent wideouts could make Aiken a decently safe WR4 this season.  He's undervalued at his overall ADP of 124, two spots behind Willie Snead.

I'm going to keep it short with the oft-injured youngster Breshad Perriman.  After failing to appear in a single game as a rookie, he's already dealt with separate knee injuries this offseason and doesn't have a return date lined up.  Still only 22 years of age, he has the potentially blazing speed to take the lid off defenses, but he's nothing more than a late-round stab at this point of his completely unproven career.

One of my favorite sleepers as of late is Mike Wallace, who finds himself back in the AFC North after bouncing around the league these past few seasons.  Wallace never performed as well as he did in Pittsburgh in his early days, but I can at least partially attribute his woes to weaker-armed QBs like Tannehill and Bridgewater.  With the one of the few "elite" aspects of Flacco's game being his throwing power, I think these two can complement each others' skills.  Basically going undrafted in standard leagues with an ADP of 183, Wallace could turn out to be a bargain WR3/Flex if things don't go right for Steve Smith and Perriman.  It's anybody's guess as to which Baltimore wideout finishes the year as their top fantasy scorer, but I'm apprehensively picking Mike Wallace.

I know I'll be avoiding Baltimore's TE corps as a whole in 2016, as it has the looks of being even muddier than their wideout group.  After a top-8 TE finish in standard scoring leagues last season, ex-Saint Benjamin Watson moved over to the Ravens this offseason.  If you're going to draft a Ravens tight end this season, Watson is your guy.  But I don't think he'll be any better than a TE2 with Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and perhaps even the injury-riddled Dennis Pitta all vying for targets.

Running game:

Yet another headache of a position for fantasy owners is the running back situation of the Ravens.  Justin Forsett, Javorius Allen, Lorenzo Talliaferro, Terrance West, and Kenneth Dixon - those are the players battling for carries in Baltimore as of now.  None of them sound overly appetizing for fantasy football, but there should be a few roster-worthy runners from that uninspiring gang.  Allen, Forsett, and Dixon figure to be the best bets for production this season, but it's incredibly difficult to predict who will provide the most value.

Justin Forsett is coming off a broken arm and will be 31 years old in October.  While he'll probably be the most valuable RB in Baltimore to kick the season off, I'm not so sure it'll stay that way for long.  His replacement in '15 was Buck Allen, who parlayed 137 rushes for just 514 yards, good for a mediocre 3.8 YPC.  While he and Forsett will probably compete for starter reps, I don't care for either of them in the before the 9th/10th round of a draft.  Kenneth Dixon is a fourth round rookie who was a TD machine in college at Louisiana Tech.  He dealt with a sprained MCL early in training camp, but if he can make a splash in the preseason, there's a decent chance he carves out a role for the Ravens early in the year.  He has the most upside in my eyes.

The only good thing about the Ravens RB corps is that you can take a stab at one of them in the later rounds without having to invest too heavily in any of their draft stocks.  Forsett currently holds an ADP of 84, Dixon at 118, and Buck Allen at 170 - virtually undrafted.  For the value, I'm going with Dixon or Allen in the triple digits and hoping one of them emerges as a useable RB3/Flex at some point of the season, but I'm not holding my breath... Terrance West and Lorenzo Talliaferro are likely fighting for one roster spot.  Don't count on any sturdy RB production from the Ravens, at least not in the early stages of the 2016 season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Passing game:

Before breaking his thumb in Week 14, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was averaging an impressive 20.2 fantasy points per game in standard scoring formats.  If you take his 12-game sample size and pace his stats for a full 16-game slate, Dalton would have finished 2015 as the 4th-best fantasy QB.  This would obviously be a lofty expectation for the upcoming season, but it just goes to show that Dalton was headed for a mid-range QB1 season.  Now, he heads into 2016 with a new group of receivers and a new offensive coordinator as well, both of which are reasons for me to pump the brakes on the "Red Rifle" this year.  While A.J. Green will return once again as his go-to target, his second and third receivers will be new in town, and his pro bowl tight end might not be ready for Week 1.  After throwing for 17 and 20 INTs in 2014 and 2015, respectively, Dalton limited his turnovers with only 7 INTs last season.  I see him throwing somewhere around 12-14 interceptions in 2016, as Dalton reps a career average of 14.6 per year.  Dalton will likely a be QB2 fighting for borderline QB1 status in the right matchup this season, as opposed to last season's mid-range QB1 campaign.

One of the league's most consistent wideouts in recent memory, A.J. Green is fresh off his fifth 1000-yard season in as many years. This impressive feat inscribed Green's name in the record books beside the one and only Randy Moss for most 1000-yard seasons to start a career, who started his own career with six consecutive 1000-yard seasons.  Suiting up for 96% of possible games in his career, Green has also proven to be a very durable player, despite his relatively lanky frame.  He uses this large wingspan to outreach opponents for the ball while also maintaining top-notch footwork around the sidelines and end zone as well.  With the departure of Marvin Jones and Mohomed Sanu, plus an injury to Eifert that leaves him questionable for Week 1, Green is set up for another big year in 2016.  As Dalton's most reliable receiving weapon by a landslide, it won't be shocking for Green to see a career-high number of targets.  Representing an ultra-safe floor, he has averaged over 80 yards per game in each of the last four seasons.  Fantasy owners who have their eyes set on A.J. in their drafts are surely hoping 2016 is his best season yet, which is certainly an attainable goal.  Select A.J. Green as your weekly WR1 and don't look back.

Brandon LaFell signed with the Bengals this offseason after a drop-filled 2015 with the Patriots, in which he only played 11 games.  Cincinnati definitely has targets to distribute after losing Jones and Sanu to free agency, and the veteran LaFell should be the early season beneficiary.  Serving as the Bengals' No. 2 WR, Jones averaged 764 yards per season since 2014 and was last year's WR40 in standard leagues.  LaFell isn't the athlete Jones is, but with defenses giving so much attention to A.J. Green on the other side, he could put up top-50 WR numbers.  Still, he's not worth more than a deep league bench spot.

One player that could outscore LaFell by season's end is rookie Tyler Boyd.  Up until his junior year, I got too see first-hand just how dominant Boyd was at the University of Pittsburgh.  He was seemingly targeted on every single player, regardless of if the defense double or triple covered him.  Still, Boyd was able to make big plays all over the field and break several records held by Pitt legend Larry Fitzgerald.  He landed in a prime spot to make a fantasy impact as a rookie, as the Bengals will certainly have targets to dish out in 2016.  A smooth route runner with soft hands, Boyd will man the slot for the Bengals in his first NFL season.  While Mo Sanu only racked up 394 receiving yards in the same role last season, Tyler Boyd is a superior athlete and I believe he'll come close to doubling that total.

After a breakout season in 2015, Tyler Eifert was primed to be a top-5 TE selection in every draft this summer.  But offseason ankle surgery has thrown some cold water on his draft stock, especially since Eifert has earned somewhat of an injury-prone label since entering the NFL.  His 13 TDs last year were the primary source of his fantasy relevance, a number that seems highly unlikely to be matched in 2016.  However, his 47.3 yards per game (in 13 contests) should easily be within reach, as Dalton is much more familiar with the big-bodied Eifert than the new pieces on offense.  Even if he misses the first few contests of the season, and I'm fully expecting him to miss at least one or two games, Eifert could still easily finish 2016 as a mid-range TE1.  This, of course, is only if he is able to stay healthy once he returns to action.  As of now, I'm not sure I can risk a mid-round pick on him when guys like Olsen, Kelce, and even Fleener are still on the board.  If he somehow gets healthy before Week 1, however, he'd be a bargain at his ADP of 73 overall.

Running game:

One of fantasy football's notable busts of the 2015 season was second-year running back Jeremy Hill.  After being tabbed as a prime RB1 candidate, Hill proceeded to disappoint with a lackluster 794 rushing yards and a 3.6 YPC mark.  Even with those poor numbers, Hill's touchdown affinity allowed him to finish as a top-15 RB in standard leagues, but his 15 receptions for 79 yards on the year didn't do much of anything for PPR owners.  He also failed to surpass 100 rushing yards in a single game last season.  That being said, I'm fully expecting the tough-running Hill to do a much better job this season in what should be another run-heavy scheme, even without Hue Jackson at coordinator.  The TD potential will still be there, plus his lame YPC average can surely be improved upon.  His standard format ADP of RB23 seems like a fair range, as Hill's range of outcomes probably includes anything from borderline RB1 to TD-dependent flex option.

His running mate, Giovani Bernard, accumulated only 64 less rushing yards on 69 less carries en route to a solid 4.7 YPC mark.  In addition, Gio caught 49 balls for 472 yards through the air, nearly 400 more yards than Hill had.  An explosive pass-catching back, Bernard also proved to be effective as a rusher in 2015, which led the Bengals to offer him a 3-year, $15.5 million contract this offseason.  The lightning to Hill's thunder, Gio's role should remain stable in 2016, especially in the receiving department.  I look for Hill to rebound from last year's underwhelming campaign, but I also envision Bernard getting plenty of touches on a weekly basis.  Although he's a bit TD-deficient, Bernard's dynamic pass-catching ability alone could make him a standard league RB3 and a quality RB2 in PPR formats.


Cleveland Browns

Passing game:

Robert Griffin III will attempt to resurrect his fantasy value in 2016, but it won't be all fun and games playing for the Browns.  When he signed with Cleveland, Griffin had little to no receiving threats to work with, but since his arrival, the Browns have provided him with first rounder Corey Coleman, while the oft-trouble Josh Gordon will be allowed to play as early as Week 5.  Add those two options to Gary Barnidge at tight end, and Griffin actually has a decent amount of playmakers at his disposal.  After bursting onto the scene as a rookie in DC, RGIII has struggled mightily with injuries and poor mechanics ever since.  However, his athleticism and raw tools that once elevated him to elite fantasy status are still somewhere out there, and now it's his job to rediscover them.  I'd describe myself as cautiously optimistic in regards to Griffin's 2016 projections, but he's still off the fantasy radar in leagues that start just one quarterback.  He's a back-end QB2 until he indefinitely beats out veteran Josh McCown and proves himself as a viable NFL starter.

Like Griffin and Gordon, standout rookie receiver Corey Coleman enters the league as a product of Baylor.  A truly game-breaking wideout at the collegiate level, Coleman was able to destroy defenses week in and week out, despite his sub-6'0" height.  Thrust into a Cleveland roster lacking many (any?) realistic pass-catching weapons, Coleman is now expected to be a No. 1 receiver for the Browns in his rookie year.  With Gordon out for the first four games, CC will likely lead the team in targets and catches in 2016, and should be the focal point in Cleveland's passing attack.  Coleman is a tremendous talent, and based on volume and opportunity alone, he should be able to return WR3/4 value.

Josh Gordon hasn't played football since the 2014 season, but he'll get another chance in 2016 after recently being reinstated by commissioner Goodell.  First, he'll be serving a four-game suspension before becoming eligible to suit up in Week 5.  A quad injury that already has Gordon sidelined during camp should be considered minor, but it is a reminder of how he'll need to get back into football shape before simply jumping back into action.  It wouldn't be much of a surprise if Gordon is a bit rusty in his first few games, but this is a receiver with an elite skill set to go along with his an ideal No. 1 wideout frame.  If he can stay healthy (and out of trouble), Gordon should be able to begin his fantasy season as a WR3 with the potential to end as a borderline WR1.  But, those are big "ifs".

Not many tight ends have a breakout season at age 30, but evidently nobody bothered telling Gary Barnidge that.  After failing to exceed 13 receptions in a single season of his career, Barnidge hauled in a whopping 79 balls for 1043 yards and 9 scores in 2015, en route to a high-end TE1 campaign.  While I certainly think Barnidge has the chance to provide TE1 numbers in most matchups, I'm not expecting a repeat of last year's dominant stat line.  He'll still be a safety blanket for RGIII (or whoever is at the helm), but there are more mouths to feed in Cleveland this year.  I could imagine him racking up around 700 yards and maybe 7 touchdowns, which would have made him fantasy football's 9th-best TE in 2015.

Running game:

Duke Johnson Jr. finished his rookie season as the 35th overall RB in standard fantasy leagues, rendering him a low-end flex play at best.  However, his 61 reception were good for fourth-most in the NFL at his position, giving him a much safer floor in PPR leagues.  This season, new HC Hue Jackson figures to make the run game a focal point for an unproven Cleveland offense, which obviously bodes well for this ex-Miami Hurricane in his sophomore year.  I'd take Johnson, a college workhorse, well ahead of his counterpart, Crowell, in both PPR and standard leagues.  After receiving double-digit carries in only two contests last season, it wouldn't surprise me if he saw 10+ carries in more than half of his games in 2016, not to mention a healthy amount of targets in the passing game.  Given the fact that Cleveland will be playing from behind quite often, Johnson's passing game prowess should once again be steady, and he is a sneaky candidate to lead all RBs in receptions.  Duke looks like a RB3/Flex in standard leagues and should be drafted with borderline RB2 expectations in PPR formats.

Isaiah Crowell made headlines this summer by posting a disturbing image on social media following the string of police incidents, and his roster spot seemed to be seriously in jeopardy.  But after taking the necessary steps to prove his wrongdoing was just an error in judgement, Crowell seems to be safely penciled in as the Browns complimentary interior runner to Duke Johnson.  Again, the Browns should be a run-based team until they fall behind on the scoreboard, so Crowell will get a healthy amount of carries even if he ends up being a change-of-pace option behind Duke, which I think he will be.  With a reasonable ADP of 101 overall in standard leagues, I have no problem taking a chance on Crowell when you're pick is approaching the triple digits.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Passing game:

After missing a quarter of the 2015 season, the rugged Ben Roethlisberger was only able to finish 20th on the fantasy QB leaderboard.  In the 11 full contests he played in, Big Ben averaged over 20.1 points per game, and his 16-game pace would have made him the QB4 overall, behind only Cam, Brady, and Wilson.  Further supporting his extreme effectiveness when on the field, Roethlisberger led the NFL in per-game passing yardage (328.2).  If fantasy owners knew he would be on the field for a full season, Ben would almost surely be drafted as a top-5 QB with an arsenal of weapons in Pittsburgh's high-powered offense.  Yet, there are a few factors that make me hesitant this season: Martavis Bryant, one of Ben's favorite targets, is out for the whole season... Le'Veon Bell, a dynamic receiving back, is tentatively expected to miss the first four games... And just to reiterate, Big Ben's health cannot be taken for granted, as he constantly takes big hits in the pocket while extending plays.  But with the league's best wideout in AB and a new toy in Ladarius Green, I have Ben ranked as my QB6 for the 2016 campaign.  If he doesn't miss any time, he could certainly exceed that ranking, but it might be safe to assume he misses a game or two.

Antonio Brown may not have the frame of Julio Jones or physical tools of a Dez Bryant, but in my eyes, he is undoubtedly the NFL's premier wide receiver.  An ultra-productive option for the past three seasons and counting, Brown has increased his receptions from 110 to 129 to 136 as well as his yardage from 1499 to 1698 to 1834.  Is it unrealistic to think Brown has the chance to once again build upon his previous numbers this season?  I think not.  First off, Martavis' suspension solidifies AB as the Steelers' aerial centerpiece, and Pittsburgh's offensive focal point until Le'Veon returns from suspension.  Secondly, if he was able to post his monster 2015 numbers with Big Ben playing in only 11 full games, imagine what he can do with his signal-caller playing an entire season.  Call me bullish, but I think if Roethlisberger can suit up for even 15 games in 2016, Antonio Brown will set a new record for both receptions and yardage.  Keep in mind, he'll have to beat Marvin Harrison's 143 catches and Calvin Johnson's 1964 yards.  Personally, I don't see this as being that bold of a prediction.  If Big Ben is healthy for 15-16 contests, he's going to do it. Just watch.  And if he doesn't, make sure you remind me of my foolish forecast.  Oh, and by the way, I'd draft Brown with the first overall pick in every fantasy format and it's really not even close.

With Bryant out of the picture in 2016, Markus Wheaton is first in line to make up for the lost production.  Wheaton manned the slot last season and caught 44 balls for career-highs in yardage (749) and TDs (5).  The third-year wideout averaged a solid 17.0 yards per reception as well, indicating his speed and big-play potential.  Headed into this season, however, Wheaton will have a larger role than we would've anticipated after last season ended, when Bryant was still on the roster.  Whether or not he'll step in as the Steelers' go-to No. 2 option in the receiving in 2016 is a major question as training camp proceeds, and even Wheaton himself is unsure of his role with Martavis out for the year.  With an ADP cost of 99th overall in standard leagues, I'm fine with grabbing him around there and hoping for the best.

Although they won't be competing for the same spot, since the Steelers roll with plenty of three-WR sets, Sammie Coates will be battling Wheaton for the most valuable fantasy receiver in Pittsburgh behind AB.  Although his hands remain questionable heading into his second NFL season, Coates' size and skills after the catch makes him an intriguing late-round pick in fantasy drafts.  Possessing a more similar playing style to Bryant than Wheaton, Coates runs a 4.43 at a solid 6'1", 212 pounds.  He'll likely start the season receiving less targets than Wheaton, who Big Ben clearly has more chemistry with, but I could see Coates being useful for a couple fantasy contests later in the season.  His floor is lower than Wheaton in 2016, but I believe his ceiling is much higher.  If Wheaton or Brown were to miss time, he'd immediately be an interesting WR3, but for drafting purposes, he's more of a WR5 dart throw.

After spending his entire career behind the legendary Antonio Gates in San Diego, tight end Ladarius Green is finally free from the shackles.  Green signed a 4-year, $20 million contract with the Steelers back in March, but his offseason was hindered by ankle surgery for an injury he supposedly suffered at the end of last season.  Regardless, the Steelers had to know what they were getting into before the acquisition, so I'd urge fantasy owners not to worry too much about his health at this stage.  Green entered training camp on the PUP as he is still unable to fully cut, but recent reports claim that Green is already running smoothly and doesn't look slowed down by his offseason surgery.  With the retirement of long-time Steelers TE Heath Miller, there are plenty of mid-field targets to distribute in 2016, with a good portion of them likely going to Ladarius.  He has looked ultra-talented in small sample sizes during his time as a Charger, and if he can get healthy before Week 1, I definitely like Green's chances of emerging as a mid-range TE1.

Running game:

In 2016, Le'Veon Bell will be facing his second suspension in as many seasons.  He's also dealt with back-to-back season-ending knee injuries, with last year's MCL/PCL tear being the more serious incident.  He is one of the most dynamic, versatile running backs in the NFL when he's healthy and out of trouble, but that simply hasn't been the case lately.  Averaging nearly 127 yards from scrimmage per game in his last two seasons, Bell's on-field dominance has never been in question.  Injury is the primary source of a potential decline in production, but so far in training camp Bell has looked explosive and has had no issues with planting/cutting.  So, if he's healthy, where does his draft stock sit in August?  Well, some analysts have Bell as a borderline first round pick despite his four-game absence, while others, like Rotoworld's Evan Silva, dinged him all the way down to a fourth/fifth round target.  I can't argue that taking Le'Veon in the first round over guys like Gurley, Peterson, D. Johnson, Elliot & company requires a serious leap of faith.  Those are talented backs who could possibly outproduce Bell even if he played all 16 games.  The production you could get from them, and a handful of other early round RBs, is perhaps too much to pass on for a suspended Bell who has injury, off-field, and maybe even committee concerns when he comes back.  If you draft Bell in the first two rounds of your league, I'd highly advise picking up D-Willy a few rounds later, even if you need to reach on him.  Nevertheless, when he's back on the field, he should be a high-end RB1, especially with the extra month of rest.

DeAngelo Williams stepped in for Bell last season and exceeded expectations in both real life and fantasy football, serving as a legit RB1 in all formats.  Now entrenched as the starter for the first month of the season, Williams will once again be Pittsburgh's bell-cow in Weeks 1-4.  This is a tricky scenario for fantasy purposes, however, since D-Willy was consistently ranked in the late rounds when Bell was suspension-free, but now has crept into the 60-70 ADP range.  So, how much would you pay for a four-week RB1 rental?  If you take Bell early on, I think Williams is very much worth a pick in the 40-50 range of your draft.  His worst-case scenario is serving as Bell's handcuff after four weeks of no-doubt RB1 production.  Williams' best-case scenario(s) could be earning a fixed workload even after Bell returns, which could make him a weekly RB3, or even becoming a bonafide RB1 if Bell were to miss time due to injury or off-field issues.  But unless you're trying to get a ransom from the owner who drafted Bell, I wouldn't be looking at Williams until at least a pick in the 60s.  I'd bet D-Willy is an RB1 from Weeks 1-4, then falls into low-end RB3 territory upon Bell's arrival, but unfortunately I don't have a crystal ball.

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Like what you read?  Drop any comments or questions below, and be sure to check out my positional rankings plus other divisional outlooks for the upcoming fantasy football season!

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